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This article was published on May 6, 2011

Should your startup hire a VP of Learning & Development?

Should your startup hire a VP of Learning & Development?
Apurva Desai
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Apurva Desai

Apurva Desai lives in the Silicon Valley where he has worked for leading Bay Area companies ranging from large giants to emerging startups f Apurva Desai lives in the Silicon Valley where he has worked for leading Bay Area companies ranging from large giants to emerging startups for the last decade. Find him on Twitter @apurvadesai and at his personal site .

Considering the near double digit unemployment rates throughout the US and in the Bay Area, where I live, along with questions about the ability of the US to compete in a global marketplace, continuous learning and retraining at the workplace is more essential than ever before.

Leading thinkers have sparked challenges in the media urging the government and United States citizens to find new ways to innovate. Two dramatic quotes illustrating this challenge and new reality are:

“In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future.”
Eric Hoffer, American social writer and philosopher (1902-1983)

“We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.”
Barack Obama, State of the Union Address 2011

Now, given this reality, let’s look at the popular Internet radio startup Pandora.  While there is much to admire about Pandora including its recent IPO filing, its legendary example of perseverance by persisting despite over 300 rejections from VCs for financing in the early 2000’s, and its early use of Facebook connect, I found this job posting to be quite noteworthy.  Vice President, Learning and Development.

Here’s the job objective:

Vice President, Learning and Development – Oakland, CA
The Vice President of Learning and Development will be responsible for creating a learning strategy to help ensure the building of employee skills to execute the Pandora business objectives. This person will be a strategic leader as well as a hands-on training specialist.

Large public companies, typically multi-hundred million or billion plus dollar companies, have for quite a while had learning and training organizations, often calling the group its “internal University”.  Its upcoming IPO withstanding, smaller private companies and startups like Pandora with 160-180 employees, usually don’t invest formally in continuous learning and development like this with a VP position and the accountability that goes with such a title.

However, I’ve seen other examples of mid-size companies including a sub $80M gaming company implementing a similar education type program, primarily to share best practice development techniques with its studio leads across the world.   These are hopefully signs of recognition of the importance of these types of programs and good models to follow for growing companies.  But it really doesn’t require a specific position like this to advance the continuous learning agenda. With the advent of free online learning initiatives such as MIT Open Course Ware where free videos, lecture notes, and exams are made available to all, technical roles have more and more resources available to them for learning.

So, now, even before the company has gotten large enough to invest in the role that Pandora has created, companies can more easily embed this learning philosophy into their culture.  And the size threshold of when companies do invest in the role is getting smaller and smaller—it has to.   As the two quotes above indicate- the prize is significant and essential!